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Iraq: Town Hall Meeting In U.S. Drives Home Meaning Of Democracy

Washington, 20 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says the emotionally charged town hall meeting to explain why he is prepared to launch a military attack against Iraq was "a good old-fashioned American debate."

Clinton said yesterday he believes most Americans back his policy of using force unless Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein backs down and provides unconditional access to all suspected weapons sites.

"They support our resolve," the president said.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - one of three top officials taking some tough questions from a crowd of 6,000 at Ohio State University on Wednesday - called it a good meeting. She said that despite the hecklers who interrupted her and the questions asked, the internationally televised event did not hurt the American cause abroad.

"I think that people (overseas) understand the vibrancy of American democracy," Albright said in a broadcast interview. She blamed the heckling "on a couple of dozen students" who sought to disrupt the event.

"We have to focus on explaining our whole case to the American people, taking the serious questions and making clear that Saddam Hussein is a threat to our way of life," Albright said. "We have to tell the American people that this is an issue of national security, and we'll continue to do that."

State Department spokesman James Foley called the gathering "a very vibrant example of American democracy at work." He said it provided a "remarkable opportunity" for the administration to "lay out the stakes" in the crisis with Iraq.

"I think there was very strong support - the hecklers notwithstanding - in the audience for a robust American policy for standing up to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction," Foley said.

"They had the opportunity really to hammer home that theme," he said, "that what is involved in this crisis is the question of weapons of mass destruction, which is the number-one security issue that we're going to be facing globally into the next century."

U.S. commentators say that while the gathering was a vivid reminder of what democracy is all about, it also showed that many Americans are against the use of force abroad unless they sense their interests are threatened.

They note that the cardinal rule of democracy is getting the consent of the governed. It goes like this: tough policy decisions - especially those which can cost lives to implement - need to be discussed in a wide public forum, ultimately justified and backed by a majority. That is why, they say, Clinton dispatched his top diplomatic and defense team to the 90-minute gathering.

Analysts say the meeting also demonstrated that the American people are divided on the issue of waging an air war - an operation that is likely to cause only minimal U.S. casualties.

At the meeting, questioners repeatedly grilled Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and White House National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. One demanded an answer to why American forces should be put into harm's way; another asked whether it was "moral" to attack another nation. A third questioner asked whether the United States is prepared to go all the way by sending in ground troops.

Toward the end, another member of the audience seated in the university's basketball auditorium asked the three officials point blank: "How can these people sleep at night?" Albright shot back, "What we are doing is so that all of you can sleep at night."